From its opening frames, The Howling stiffens, stretches tightly, and even occasionally loosens the nerves, all without losing entirely its firm grip on your emotions. Director Joe Dante has a great love for movie lore, which informs the canvas on which he paints and makes repeat viewings essential, while never wavering in his drive to tell the story as quickly and efficiently as possible. That makes the running time fly by; it's only later that you realize how deep an impression the film carves into your subconscious.
Released in May 1981, The Howling was first out of the gate of the unofficial, unrelated "wolf meets man" trilogy that year, beating both Wolfen and An American Werewolf in London into theaters. Working with a budget reportedly ten times smaller than American Werewolf, The Howling made a killing at the box office in relation to its budget. It's fascinating to compare the films, but beyond the vague subject matter of "werewolves," they have little in common. Dante was a proud graduate of the Roger Corman school of low budget filmmaking. As a result, The Howling is a lean, mean tension machine that's much better than its straightforward approach might suggest.
Disembodied voices whisper under abstract video images as the credits roll and stringed instruments saw away in the background. The images resolve into a televised interview with Dr. George Waggner (Patrick Macnee) spouting a soothing brand of psycho-babble. Behind the scenes, the station's general manager (Kevin McCarthy) directs traffic as co-anchor Karen White (Dee Wallace) trawls through Hollywood, preparing to meet with Eddie (Robert Picardo), a suspect in a string of vicious murders.